Years ago, when many basic laws of Western nations were largely ‘Christian’ in nature, suicide was regarded as little different from murder. The issue was the taking of life, no matter that the life in question was one’s own. In more recent times attitudes to suicide have softened, and in many countries it is no longer a crime.
Living as we do now in a more secular age, for many people a review of the laws preventing assisted suicide – or ‘assisted dying’ as it is called – has become more pressing. A bill for this purpose has recently been presented in the British Parliament.
Many people now might say “My body belongs to me!” and would like the option of ending their own life how and when they choose. But is that choice open to a Christian? Is it true that our bodies belong to us, and that we may do with them whatever we want?
2000 years ago
To answer those questions we need to turn back the clock.
When the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth, he knew he was writing to people in a city that was renowned for its loose way of life. Within its gates there was ample opportunity to participate in immoral behaviour. Even in the temples of its gods there were ‘sacred’ prostitutes at the disposal of worshippers.
Knowing they were faced with such temptations, Paul asked his readers a question:
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh’. But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (1 Corinthians 6:15-17 ESV)
There was an important underlying principle at stake. Those who come to an understanding of the gospel and are ‘joined’ to the Lord Jesus Christ in baptism belong to him, and are no longer at liberty to do with their bodies whatever they want. To think otherwise is to ignore the thoughts and feelings of Christ himself!
Before they became Christians, the people Paul was writing may have thought “My body belongs to me”, and acted accordingly. But now that they were Christians they knew better. As Paul reminded them:
“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body…You are not your own; you were bought with a price. Therefore honour God with your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20 NIV)
Their new status in God’s eyes made demands on them, in exactly the same way as Paul set out to the Roman believers their ‘logical’ and ‘rational’ response to their beliefs:
“…present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” (Romans 12:1 KJ)
“For none of us lives to himself alone, and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Romans 14:7-8 NIV)
A challenge facing Christians
Advances in medical knowledge present us with new challenges concerning our bodies, and concerning our attitude to the opportunities now open to us. The ‘pathway’ to the end of our natural lives can now be managed in a humane and dignified way, without the need for premature termination. Palliative care can allow a Christian to complete that “reasonable service” that is acceptable to the God that created life “in the beginning”, without extreme suffering.
But suffering, however extreme, is part of our human condition and how people endure suffering can have a very positive effect on those who watch. Someone suffering from a terminal illness himself recently wrote on his blog:
“I have learned that the suffering and heartache that is part of the human condition does not have to be wasted and cut short out of fear or seeking control in a seemingly uncontrollable situation. Perhaps this is the most important miracle God intends for me to experience.”
None of us knows just how we might respond in such a desperate situation, and so none of us are in a position to dictate to others who face such a challenge to their faith. But we can all learn from the attitude and actions of those who know from experience what such a challenge entails.
In prison and faced with a decision of his own about whether to live or die, Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi about his dilemma:
“It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:20 ESV)
Fortunately, none of us knows the future, or what difficulties we may have to face. But if such issues confront us, and ‘assisted dying’ appears to be an option, then surely it should be our intention – as a Christian – to show that our body is not our own.